Movie Reviews
2:41 pm
Mon July 1, 2013

Branagh Imagines Mozart's 'Magic Flute' In Wartime

Mozart's The Magic Flute, the last opera he lived to complete, has some of his most sublime and sublimely comic music. Technically, it's more of a musical comedy, what in German is called a Singspiel, a play with songs and spoken dialogue. I was excited to learn that it was filmed by Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespeare movies I really admire. Mozart's mixture of fairy tale and high morality presents a great opportunity for a filmmaker; in 1975, Ingmar Bergman released a version for Swedish television that has become a beloved classic.

Branagh's film was shown at festivals in 2006, then played in Europe. It's now finally been screened here briefly in theaters and is available on American DVD. Why has it taken so long to get here? Now that I've seen it, I think I know.

The Magic Flute tells the story of Pamina, the beautiful daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina has been abducted by the high priest Sarastro, and the queen persuades the brave Tamino to find her. But Sarastro is actually the good guy, rescuing Pamina from the clutches of her evil mother. The most appealing character is the queen's earthy bird-catcher, Papageno, who joins Tamino on his quest.

The main problem with the film is that Branagh updates the setting to a World War I battlefield. It's clever to turn the bird-catcher into a soldier who uses birds to test for poison gas. But the tone is all wrong. This grimly literalistic relocation conflicts with both the fantasy elements of the music and with Mozart's profound spirituality. It's bizarre to have the Queen of the Night singing her flamboyant coloratura entrance aria standing on a tank.

There's one marvelous moment when the screen fills with a creepy image of singing sandbags warning about fate. But the best parts of the film take place away from the battlefield, as when Papageno, desperate to find a girlfriend, rushes toward a pair of luscious, disembodied red lips. And the scene between Papageno and Papagena, the girl of his dreams, has real charm.

It's a good young cast, except for Amy Carson in the role of Pamina. Carson makes a very pretty, almost pre-Raphaelite heroine. But this is one of the most radiantly beautiful soprano roles ever written, and Carson's singing voice is pinched and so often off pitch, it's painful. On the other hand, the best-known singer in the film, the celebrated bass Rene Pape, a famous Sarastro, sings this role magnificently, with the profoundest dignity and warmth.

It doesn't matter that in this movie Pape plays a doctor in a field hospital rather than a high priest. His noble performance, James Conlon's vibrant conducting and the superb Chamber Orchestra of Europe are the main reasons for Mozart lovers to put themselves through this disappointing effort.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The English actor and film director, Kenneth Branagh, has directed a film interpretation of Mozart's opera, "The Magic Flute." Branagh's version is set on a World War I battlefield - with mixed results, according to our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM FILM, "THE MAGIC FLUTE")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Mozart's "The Magic Flute," the last opera he lived to complete, has some of his most sublime and sublimely comic music. Technically, it's more of a musical comedy, what in German is called a Singspiel, a play with songs and spoken dialogue. I was excited to learn that it was filmed by Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespeare movies I really admire. Mozart's mixture of fairy tale and high morality presents a great opportunity for a filmmaker. In 1975, Ingmar Bergman released a version for Swedish television that has become a beloved classic.

Branagh's film was shown at festivals in 2006, then played in Europe. It's now finally been screened here briefly in theaters and is available on American DVD. Why has it taken so long to get here? Now that I've seen it, I think I know.

"The Magic Flute" tells the story of Pamina, the beautiful daughter of the Queen of the Night who has been abducted by the high priest Sarastro. The queen persuades the brave Tamino to find her. But Sarastro is actually the good guy, rescuing Pamina from the clutches of her evil mother. The most appealing character is the queen's earthy bird-catcher, Papageno, who joins Tamino on his quest.

The main problem with the film is that Branagh updates the setting to a World War I battlefield. It's clever to turn the bird-catcher into a soldier who uses birds to test for poison gas. But the tone is all wrong. This grimly literalistic relocation conflicts with both the fantasy elements of the music and with Mozart's profound spirituality. It's bizarre to have the Queen of the Night singing her flamboyant coloratura entrance aria standing on a tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM FILM, "THE MAGIC FLUTE")

LYUBOV PETROVA: (as Queen of the Night) (Singing in Foreign Language)

SCHWARTZ: There's one marvelous moment when the screen fills with a creepy image of singing sandbags warning about fate. But the best parts of the film take place away from the battlefield, as when Papageno, desperate to find a girlfriend, rushes toward a pair of luscious, disembodied red lips. And the scene between Papageno and Papagena, the girl of his dreams, has real charm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM FILM, "THE MAGIC FLUTE")

BENJAMIN JAY DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop.

SILVIA MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing)Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

MOI: Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing)Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, Papagena.

MOI: (as Papageno) (Singing) Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop Papageno.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Do my tired old eyes deceive me?

MOI: (as Papageno) (Singing) No. I'm here. I say, believe me.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Say you'll be my wife forever.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Say you'll be my handsome lover.

SILVIA MOI AND BENJAMIN JAY DAVIS: (as Papagena and Papageno) (Singing) My handsome lover. My handsome lover.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing)Oh, I'm sure she'll be my bride.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Oh, might I be your bride?

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) Let me hold you. Let me kiss you.

MOI: (as Papagena) (Singing) Let me hold you. Let me kiss you.

DAVIS: (as Papagena and Papageno) (Singing) (Unintelligible) with chicks inside. Chicks inside. Chicks inside. Chicks inside. Congratulations. Chicks inside. I cannot tell (unintelligible) with chicks inside.

DAVIS: (as Papageno) (Singing) This isn't what the game...

SCHWARTZ: For the most part, this "Magic Flute" would be better just as the soundtrack. Then at least you could read along with Stephen Fry's operatic and slangy English translation - since there are no subtitles and the diction of the singers isn't consistently comprehensible.

It's a good young cast, except for the role of Pamino. Amy Carson makes a very pretty, almost pre-Raphaelite heroine. But this is one of the most radiantly beautiful soprano roles ever written, and Carson's singing voice is pinched and so often off pitch, it's painful. On the other hand, the best-known singer in the film, the celebrated bass Rene Pape, a famous Sarastro, sings this role magnificently, with the profoundest dignity and warmth.

Here's his first scene with Tamino, the tenor, Joseph Kaiser.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM FILM, "THE MAGIC FLUTE")

JOSEPH KAISER: (as Tamino) (Singing) Where is she? I won't be denied. Please God, don't tell me it's too late.

RENE PAPE: (as Sarastro) (Singing) It is forbidden, dearest child. I am not free to tell you yet.

KAISER: (as Tamino) (Singing) You speak in riddles. Tell me straight.

PAPE: (as Sarastro) (Singing) I cannot help you. Watch and wait.

KAISER: (as Tamino) (Singing) When can I hope to have some answers?

PAPE: (as Sarastro) (Singing) In time, my friend you'll understand. In time you'll join our sacred pact.

SCHWARTZ: It doesn't matter that in this movie Pape plays a doctor in a field hospital rather than a high priest. His noble performance, James Conlon's vibrant conducting and the superb Chamber Orchestra of Europe are the main reasons for Mozart lovers to put themselves through this disappointing effort.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the senior editor of classical music for the Web journal, New York Arts. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM FILM, "THE MAGIC FLUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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